Kingdom Dwellers

Ezekiel 34: 11-12, 15-17; I Cor 15: 20-26, 28; Matthew 25: 31-46

All year we’ve heard from Matthew’s gospel and today we come to what many consider to be the culmination of what he was all about in his writing, the Judgment of Nations.  Keep in mind it’s not about individual judgment as we’ve often associated.  For Matthew, the other gospel writers, and Paul in today’s second reading, salvation was not an individual sport.  It was about the collective salvation and their own seeking of the common good in this life.  It, of course, has been overly politicized over the years and many times rightly so when we neglect people in need for one reason or another, but that’s not necessarily the context in which Matthew writes nor the lens we need to read it.

If we had to sum up Matthew’s approach to his community, as one he often struggled with, fearing division and its demise following the destruction of the Temple, it would be a journey of interior change and how we handle change in our lives and how our experience of God changes.  If you know anything about Israel’s history you know the destruction of the Temple seems to almost be a regular occurrence for them.  It wasn’t just the center of their faith life but was also the center of politics and economics so everything was intertwined.  With that being the case, it should be no surprise that it is destroyed over time.  However, just like it is today, when they all become intertwined in that way it’s without a doubt that God is going to come third in line, and so, in some sense, Matthew tries to lead the community to a much harder change, an interior change, to recognize that there’s something bigger than the Temple and that an encounter with God can happen, often times even more, beyond the temple dwellers.

From the beginning of the gospel, if we recall from Advent and Christmas last year, Mary and Joseph were on the run, refugees.  The Magi come on their own journey and return differently because of the encounter with the Christ, something is changed interiorly in their lives.  Throughout the gospel the disciples are being led outside of Jerusalem to experience the Christ in the acts of healing and forgiving, rather than something you go to they are being led to be an embodiment of that love that takes on flesh and they find their true strength from within.  It’s what makes Jesus so dangerous to the Pharisees and other temple dwellers.  As disciples, the Temple has it’s place but they aren’t meant to dwell there.  Rather, they’re kingdom dwellers with the Spirit of God going with them into these encounters.  This God that Matthew portrays to us and that we’re called to embrace can no longer be confined to a particular time and space.  At that point it’s not God anyway.  Rather this God cannot be contained and is going to lead them to the places of discomfort and uncertainty to learn to put their trust not in the Temple as has been their history, but the temple of the Holy Spirit acting within the community and each other.

It is new, of course, for the people in first century but even new for us at times.  However, the message has been a part of Israel’s history, even at the burning bush when God is revealed in name and that they mustn’t get hung up on the location of these events.  When they do that it begins the gradual confinement of God to a time and space and we find ourselves living in the past.  It’s where the prophets have tried to lead the people, over and over again, but with great resistance even costing them their lives at times.  They too get hung up on the temple dwellers and thinking that God can somehow be confined to that space.  Yet, with this enmeshment of faith, politics, and economics, the question really should be, as it was in the parable of the talents as well as the wise and foolish virgins as to who is the master they’re serving.

Ezekiel, in today’s first reading was one such prophet.  If you read it in its larger context you know that he’s going after them for this very thing, their own corruption.  Israel once again finds itself in exile during the time of the Babylonian Exile and they’re not being cared for.  The people responsible, the shepherds of the time, were not taking care of the needs of the lost, the strayed, the injured and sick.  They had become their own gods in some sense, temple dwellers themselves rather than seeing beyond and being moved to the place of discomfort in their lives.  When you have it all and you’re on top, even in our own time, it seems as if there really is no need for this God.  I’m quite fine with the gods I can hold onto, that bring me comfort, that keep me safe, rather than leading me outward while being inwardly changed. It’s the opportunity to not only encounter God in a different way but to learn of myself in a new way and light.  It’s not about changing others.  It’s about allowing ourselves to be changed, our hearts to be changed by going to the very place we fear.  It’s the story of Mary and Joseph.  It was the Magi.  It’s the embodiment of love.  It’s the journey Matthew has invited us into this past year.

So it brings us to the culmination of his gospel and the judgment of nations.  Needless to say we have often failed at embodying love.  We have allowed ourselves to be temple dwellers while often enmeshing faith, politics, and economics, while neglecting sometime our very own rather than surrendering it all to the true God.  Like Israel in all its history, when the three become enmeshed, God, without a doubt, will become confined and the other two will take their place as the gods of our time.  We all fall prey to it and all find ourselves as sheep and goats.  But for Matthew, it meant something more.  It meant an embodiment of that love and not just loving neighbor.  Rather, being one with neighbor in the sick, the poor, the refugee, the imprisoned, the stranger. 

Every one of us is good at making ourselves comfortable.  For Matthew, our faith is quite the opposite.  We’re not called to be temple dwellers where we grow comfortable and safe, confining God to our particular time and space.  There’s a place for it but it resides in something bigger than time and space.  Rather, kingdom dwellers where we seek the eternal, the Christ, with prayer always on our lips for a change of heart.  It’s what it’s all about.  It’s messy.  It’s hard.  It’s frightening.  Yet, with Mary and Joseph leading the way for Matthew, we’re called to go out and encounter the living God and to be that embodiment of love that we’ve witnessed through the eyes of Matthew this year.

 

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The Predictably Unpredictable Master

The parable of the talents is now the second of the three in this chapter of Matthew.  Last week we heard the parable of the wise and foolish virgins and then next week will be the culmination of Jesus’ teaching in this gospel in the judgment of the nations.  It’s the final teaching of Jesus before the real event as to what this all means and what it has to tell them about who this God and who this Jesus really is and what he’s all about.  Like the other two parables this one is filled, like our lives, with many contradictions that are hidden in plain sight.

Our natural inclination, as I’ve said before, is to automatically try to identify who’s who in these parables that Jesus offers us.  It’s almost as if we have to identify roles so we know where we fit and somehow feel comfortable with it, knowing who’s who.  However, that would leave us in a bit of a predicament with calling God the master of the story, considering what we know about the master according to the one who was given one talent.  Even the master makes a pre-judgment about the guy by only giving one, according to his ability.  But this same guy then reveals the identity of the master by telling us that he’s demanding, a lie and a cheat and pretty much leaves them to their own accord by leaving.  Now I can’t necessarily say that’s how I would identify God, and yet, when we rush to judgment and trying fill in the blanks, it’s the God we’re left with.  But maybe that’s Jesus point.

Let’s look at the other two who obviously were very successful in turning the talents into great wealth.  According to our standard today we’re talking millions of dollars, more money than we know what to do with.  They make this money by becoming the likeness of the master and his success which means they too become demanding along with liars and cheats.  It was common knowledge in that time.  Also common thinking, as it often is to this very day, that wealth and this accumulation of it was how they viewed God.  The more I had the more somehow God has blessed me and graced my life, as if grace and blessing can somehow be quantified.  Today we’d call it the prosperity gospel.  The more I have the more God must love me and well, if I don’t it’s probably my own fault.  You see, God is not the master in this sense.  The master is a god but they serve the master of success of wealth and power.  It stands in total contradiction to what they are about to witness about the true Master facing the passion, death, and resurrection.  Yet, we’ve adopted in our own churches serving the wrong master at times.  It may bring us joy, as we hear, but it’s a fleeting joy, not the joy that comes through the true Master, the eternal.

That does, though, leave the third one hanging out there.  Mindful of all we know of Jesus and all the stories we’ve heard from Matthew this year wouldn’t it make sense that he’d be drawn to this final character of the parable.  You can almost imagine him huddled over out of fear seeking the Lord of life.  But the master of success in the parable has already made a judgment about him, just as the Pharisees have done about anyone that has not been somehow blessed by God, by not having.  Here’s a guy who even stands up to the master of success, facing him with a sense of authenticity and courage, humbling confronting the master and just as the Pharisees do, he’s tossed into the darkness.  He comes with nothing and leaves with nothing.  Isn’t that just how our lives are designed?  We always want more and the more is never enough.  Success for the true Master is more about less being more, it’s about coming as we are, with nothing, in humility and with authenticity standing up to the many masters we serve.

That is what’s behind this rather unusual proverb we hear in the first reading.  What the heck does the ideal wife have to do with talents and all the rest in the gospel?  What makes her the ideal is that she’s not there to serve the master in her husband.  Rather, she’s mindful of the true master and does all she does in the name of that Master.  The proverb tells us that she finds all the superficialities as fleeting, charm and beauty are simply joys that will pass.  She keeps her eye on her one God.  She is a woman that fears the Lord in its truest sense, a hope and joy that is eternal and she finds that through serving the true Master, as we’d say, in Christ, through the grace to trust and have a deeper sense of faith that transcends what the world offers her, which at that time was not a great deal.

Paul reminds us through his letter to the Thessalonians today that the moment comes in all of our lives, like a thief in the night, when we’re questioned and when we should begin to question the master that it is that we are serving.  He tells us when it arises in us it’s like labor pains, a painful experience when we are awakened to the reality that we’ve been serving our own master rather than the Master.  It will not only be what master we decide to serve but also what we do with it.  Do we continue to seek fleeting joy and the instant gratification in our lives or do we look for more?  Ironically, when we look for more it’s often less that can fill.  The more we try to fill ourselves with our own masters the more empty we become, lacking meaning and purpose in our lives.

We are now just over a month away from when our lives become all about the “more”.  We’ll need more gifts, cards, parties, stuff to have ourselves a successful Christmas.  Yet, we’ve probably all been in that place, that, when all is said and done we feel empty and unfulfilled.  More often than not it’s because we’ve spent our times serving the wrong master and then we’re faced with the holiday blues.  We pray this day for the grace to become aware or maybe even just to begin to ask ourselves who is the master we serve in our lives.  The master we serve says a lot about the God we choose to serve.  This god of success and prosperity is so tempting in our lives and yet often comes at great cost.  Maybe not in the moment but at some point it happens.  The true Master calls us to a life of humility, faith and trust.  The more we keep our eye and heart on the true Master the more we begin to realize that we don’t need much, that less is often more.  It’s a God of deep mystery that we are invited to fall into, as the ideal wife does in Proverbs, trusting in the promise of the eternal joy that arrives when we finally let go of our own masters and learn to trust the fall into the true Master of our lives, the eternal Christ.

 

Illusionary Violence

Shortly after the shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, I received an email asking if we, as a parish, are prepared if something like this were ever to happen.  Now first, I’m not sure anything can prepare you for something like this, other than possibly a sniper attack in a war zone or consistent trauma in your life; but secondly, I’m not convinced I want to be prepared for something like that.  I can certainly understand, from a logical and rational point of view, but it also feels, as someone who is supposed to trust deeply in this higher being we call God, that it’s giving into fear, which is antithetical to the consistent message of Jesus in the gospel proclaimed every Sunday not to fear.

Safety and Security may be the two greatest illusions we hold onto and quickly buy into when we react to horrific acts like this.  Our immediate response is more guns or at times, build walls, anything that’s going to give us the false sense of security that we desire to make us feel safe.  We pad ourselves in whatever way possible, building a fortress in order to appeal to what our eyes can see, “I’m safe now”, but deep down, in the unseen, the heart of the matter continues to exist.  It never quite strikes at the deepest fear we cling to, which is death, but in those moments our automatic response is to consume more of what we know rather than sit with the unknown reality that all who are hurting are left with in their lives.  The consistent underlying message when giving into fear is that I will do everything possible to avoid what really could have been me.  It very well could have been me or anyone else sitting in that church on Sunday or a movie theater or a classroom or at a concert or whatever the next setting will be, knowing full well that there, unfortunately, will be another, and each time it is me.

More often than I’d like, including less than a month ago, I have written on this blog the continuous struggle with violence that we witness and perpetrate in our lives.  Violence goes beyond the horrific acts of gun violence as well as other means that we have all too often witnessed in this country, a consistent reminder that there’s a problem.  More often than not, though, we’ve bought into the culture of violence, through our words and actions.  These men, and yes, it is consistently men as well, are a mere microcosm of the deeper issue that continues to spread throughout the country.  We consume it daily through news outlets and social media and many times spread it ourselves.  We consume it in our conversations, in our gossip, in our lack of respect for human life and all creation.  The simple reaction to our problems is to blame and invoke violence against the other, feeding into the death of the soul of a nation, bankrupted of any moral standing, putting guns, walls, drugs, things, before the very dignity of the very person that is most impacted.

Now I’m not one to necessarily always buy into the understanding that we are all divided.  Unfortunately, division sells and sells big.  Fear is such a deeply rooted reality in our hearts and souls that we appear attracted to it and drawn into it consistently, quickly buying into any fix as to take away the eternal pain of separation while building up a false narrative of the kingdom.  Our problem, as consumers, is that over time we’re lulled into believing it all, even if we know deep down that things aren’t right.  In our own infatuation of the illusion of safety and security we will find a way to cling to anything that is known and certain, often to avoid the fear that only continues to grow exponentially, leaving us in a frenzy.  It happens in us as individuals but collectively as a country as well, mindful that that illusion was shattered in this country after the events of 9/11.  Since then, violence has spiraled, divisions have been set in place, even if they are illusions, extremes have positioned themselves, all feeding into this fear while the rest of the world watches and waits, looking from a place a part from us, understanding our hurt and pain in a way we know not and seem to refuse to look at and consistently find ways to avoid.  We have grown a part from ourselves and each other, now leaving us with more violence than our hearts are often able to bear.

I honestly cannot imagine what it was like in that church on Sunday and maybe I don’t want to either.  My guess is it started like any other Sunday, people catching up with one another, asking about family and friends who may be sick, the small chit-chat that happens on a typical Sunday morning.  There were no thoughts of feeling unsafe, no thoughts of what separates and divides people.  They were a community that gathered under a common purpose and with God at the forefront.  In an instant, lives were changed forever and many eternally.  It wasn’t long after that the predicted responses would begin and hurting lives would once again be turned into politics and more violence, separating and dividing.  We hear about guns don’t kill people, good people need guns, if the government makes any changes they’ll take away all our guns, as we know best, it’s all or nothing, benefiting corporations, feeding a consumer culture rooted in fear, safety and security.  We react and lives are left shattered in the process.

I have no answer even though it seems like I write about this so regularly anymore.  I’m not sure there really are answers when we don’t even know the right questions to ask.  Conversations are directed from backstage, inciting fear, and without even thinking, we give into it so quickly, again, believing what we are told and so often afraid to go to the depths of our own being to evaluate what’s most important to us.  We will never have the safety and security that we think or believe we should have.  It’s a mere illusion and an illusion that is fed by a consumer culture.  More than anything, we need to learn to have a patient trust in the slow workings of God in our lives. 

There is so much healing that needs to happen in our lives, not just the hundreds whose lives have been shattered by traumatic violence that goes beyond the city, but each of us who find blaming the other individual or group for our problems, throwing tantrums in trying to get our way.  Not only do we need healing but we need to grow up and accept responsibility for ourselves and each other.  We do this not by continuously buying into these illusions that feed our own fears, but in learning to embrace the paradox and mystery of life and death.  Our lives are not comprised of only half the mystery, the half we like while living in fear of the other.  Rather, with each passing breath in every given moment a gift is being given to live, but at the same time to let go and trust in the unseen power of God.  For all who have faced such trauma and are reeling in the grief of loss while they still cling to life, it’s all they have, and quite frankly, it’s all any of us really have.

Demanding Change

Matthew 17: 1-9

Did you ever wonder about the other nine?  They always seemed to be excluded or left out of some of the best moments in the gospels.  It seems, like today with the Transfiguration, that it’s always Peter, James, and his brother John who get singled out and are given the chance to experience things that the others don’t.  Let’s be real.  The three of them aren’t even the most stellar of candidates to single out.  We know Peter from hearing the stories.  Next week his faith will be tested.  He doubts.  He denies.  He runs away when things get tough.  A little further down this journey the two brothers will be fighting amongst themselves as to who’s the greatest and who should sit at the right and left of the Lord.  More often than not, these three are about power and grabbing for it in ways that never seems to end well.

Even in this gospel that we hear today they are told one thing to do and that’s to keep their mouths shut when they get down to the bottom of the mountain where the other nine are located.  Now, I’m one of six and I can tell you that if three are separated to go experience something that the others don’t, one of two things will happen.  Either they’ll come up quickly to find out what happened since it was a secret or the three will taunt the others that somehow they’re better than because they had something that the others didn’t!  It’s life and it shows where they are at on this journey, still children themselves in faith.  Like most, it won’t be until something is demanded of them before it’s all put to the test and who and what will stand the test of time.

It appears in these instances that Jesus is setting them up to fail, but maybe not fail in the sense that we often understand, but rather setting them up to fall apart and that they will do.  The journey following the transfiguration in the gospels is one on the decline.  Everything has been building to this point and from here on they will go down the mountain literally and figuratively, into Calvary, to the Cross, into their own hearts and souls.  When their lives are demanded of them as the gospels go on, they will fall apart but they have to fall apart in order to once again build community on its true foundation in Christ.  Up to the great test of the cross and their childish faith, not much has been asked of them.  And as we know, even what is asked doesn’t seem to happen, like keeping their mouths shut about these experiences.  It’s about that power that they think they have in their agendas, in their thinking of being better than, in talking about who’s the greatest, probably jealousy and all the rest that we are familiar with in our lives.  Jesus could transfigure all he wants to these three, but at the moment, it doesn’t mean much of anything but can easily be used as an experience to build themselves up.

But the whole event casts a shadow upon them which is when they become fearful.  They become fearful of themselves, more than anything and what this is all going to mean to them as the journey continues.  It’s no wonder why Peter would rather stay here, stay put, because they’ve been given something without having to give anything in return.  Nothing has yet been demanded of them in this journey of faith.  This downward journey of transformation and conversion will eventually push them to change.  We all know that none of us changes easily.  We, like them, are often pushed to the brink, to the cliff, before we will finally surrender and let go, opening ourselves to change and transformation.  It comes, so often, when our own mortality is put on the line before we can finally begin to ask what’s most important, what do we value, what gives us meaning, and quite frankly, what is it that I need to finally let go of in life.

All too often we hold on way to long rather than surrendering to the demand of the gospel to a change of heart, to grow into an adult faith of trust and mystery.  That is what is revealed to them on that mountain in today’s gospel, but for them, not yet.  For them, their center remains outside of them and beyond them and has not yet moved within.  When they are finally confronted with the cross and everything begins to crumble around them, they will be left with the opportunity to mature in their faith and become the disciples the Lord summons them to and quite frankly, promises them from the very beginning.  They will begin to form community around the eternal, around the transfigured Christ.

On this feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord, sure, it is about the Lord’s transfiguration before these three would-be disciples, but in the end, it’s about what is going to be demanded of them in their own lives.  If they could stop for a minute, maybe the most important thing that is revealed to them in this shadow is to listen.  If we can learn to listen on a deeper level, beyond all the noise of our lives, the truth and the promise will begin to reveal itself to us.  It will reveal itself to us as individuals but also as community and where it is we need to grow into the promise that is given in this moment.  The day always comes when something is demanded of us and more often than not, it’s giving up what we think has given us life or giving up what we believe has given us life but no longer nourishes and nurtures us.  That’s where true transformation can happen in our lives.  As we listen, what is it we are holding onto in our lives, individually and collectively, that holds us back from the promise.  It is in that space that surrender is being demanded to live a life of faith and trust in the promise shown in the Transfiguration.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Humble Service

Exodus 12: 1-8, 11-14; ICor 11: 23-26; John 13: 1-15

One thing that Pope Francis reminds us of all the time is our gospel mandate to serve the poor. He says we are a “Church that is poor for the poor.” Certainly there is a superficial element to it when it comes to material goods and the greed, as he often says that accompanies it in the Western World, but there’s also a deeper meaning to it and a deeper longing that it often comes from deep within us, a place of poverty that yearns for us to be. Our avoidance of it so often in our lives leads us to where we do find ourselves in the world with countries like our own about accumulating while others lack beyond our imagination. It says something about our own poverty and what it is we are being invited into on this three day retreat and how we use the symbols that are a part of these days to lead us there.

On this first night, we hear a familiar gospel from John of the washing of the disciples feet as he too leads them to a place of poverty within themselves in what appears to be a rather uncomfortable position for them. The first symbol we encounter in the passage is Jesus disrobing. For the disciples of that time, something like that would have been scandalous, accompanied by the fact that the leader of this movement will then go on to wash their feet; unheard of. But as this liturgy goes on this evening we will do the same thing to this altar. Before we leave we will leave this space in a rather unusual place. None of us would do it if we were expecting guests in our own homes; we’d want it to look the best and for everyone to see what we’re about. We move away from that place of poverty within ourselves and put on a show. But the service that Jesus mandates this evening is quite the opposite. Disrobing, the stripping of the altar, the bending down, the place of humility calls the disciples and us to a different kind of service.

We are often much more comfortable with the service that we can do indirectly. There’s no harm in it all, but a Church that is poor and for the poor demands something different from each of us, to go out and within to where we are most uncomfortable, most vulnerable, and allow ourselves to be exposed as Jesus does and as we will do to this space as the evening wears on and in turn allow ourselves to be changed. John’s Gospel is predominantly about conversion of heart and it’s done by being led to those vulnerable places in our lives, humbling us, bending down, disrobing, allowing ourselves to be exposed, not to change the other but to allow our own hearts to be changed. We heard that in the weeks leading up to this point with the Woman at the Well, The Blind Man, and the Raising of Lazarus.

It was a concern for Paul as well as we are invited into Corinth today. Paul was aware even at this point that the poor were being separated from the community celebration of breaking bread. The community began to become elitist and separating itself from anyone that it deemed worthy to participate. If they were allowed it was at a different time than everyone else. In many ways, to eat the scraps left over. There was a disconnect in the mandate of the gospel to serve. Although John doesn’t come out of this community, he does originate from one of Paul’s communities and in many ways takes it all a step further. Paul lays the groundwork for this theological basis for what’s going on and then John puts skin to it and makes it real, bringing it down to earth and what it means to serve on a deeper level. It is obvious that Paul and John knew and had allowed themselves to be taken to that place of poverty within themselves and their lives are changed for ever, while remaining connected to their larger story of faith.

That’s what we hear in the first reading today from Exodus and the Passover celebration. Our Jewish brothers and sisters just a few days ago told this very story around their tables. They tell the story not to take them backwards to that place, but rather as a reminder of their story and their own journey, as a people and community, to that place of great struggle and poverty in their lives. They mustn’t ever forget who they are and where they had come from and so the telling of the story and the participation in the great symbols of the faith lead them to a place of change in their own hearts.

These days are filled with many symbols as our the readings we are invited to enter into this day. Some would say that John’s story of the washing of the disciples feet was one used in early baptisms, connecting what it was all about and the service that was being demanded of them. It throws everything off kilter from the other gospels because it’s out of order, happening not during the Passover, that somehow this Christ was breaking through even at this very moment, from the depths of their being, that place of poverty within.

The challenge for us to allow all the symbols to speak to us and to lead us to that place of conversion in our lives. It may be the bending down, the washing of feet, the humbling movement, the stripping of the altar, disrobing as Jesus does. Which of the symbols makes us most uncomfortable? That’s so often the place that God is trying to break through in our lives. This isn’t just about Holy Thursday and all we have made it out to be over the years. Rather, for John, it’s already about Easter. Lent has ended and we enter into the great feast. John is going to ask how we make resurrection a part of our lives in this moment, and this evening it comes in the form of humbling service from that place of poverty within. We are a Church that is poor for the poor, but maybe in ways we don’t always expect. Allow the symbols to speak and to change what it is we hold onto in our lives, now being washed away in the humble giving of Jesus, and as Peter eventually teaches us today, through our humble reception of that giving. That’s the point of change, the point of conversion in our lives.

Road Less Traveled

Genesis 12: 1-4a; II Tim 1: 8b-10; Matthew 17: 1-9

Life is difficult. It’s the first line in the book, The Road Less Traveled. The author, Dr. Peck goes onto say just after that sentence that it takes a great deal of acceptance of that statement to finally let it go and move on, accepting reality for what it is and now what we think it should be. It’s why so many choose not to take the road less traveled because it means change and letting go and remaining open to something new in our lives. We’d often rather just wallow in our challenges and difficulties, somehow victims of a God that doesn’t seem to give me what I want when I ask.

The spiritual journey is no different. It’s difficult and like life, probably why so many choose not to take the road less traveled. It’s much easier to make my relationship with God about what I do on Sunday rather than a daily affair of prayer and silence. The problem, though, is it starts to close us off from even needing God. We begin to settle for something less than we really are and plant our stakes deep in the ground, often even cutting us off from God. As much as we sell ourselves short in life, we can do the same in our spiritual lives, knowing they are so intertwined, often settling for death over life.

I think it’s why the story of Abraham and Sarah is such a model for us in our lives because they did often choose the road less traveled. Listen, pretty much everything up to this point in the bible ends in disaster. It ends with war and violence. It ends in destruction. But when Abraham and Sarah enter the story, there seems to be the dawn of a new day in salvation history. You know, the two of them have every reason to be like so many that had come before them and there lives just ending poorly. They’re 75 years old and it seems as if God never gives them what they want. They could live their lives as victims of circumstances and give up. They can just dig the stakes of their tent in deeply and settle for less. However, that’s not what they do. Here they are, well into their lives, and now being called to embark on yet another journey from a God that hasn’t come through for them the way they wanted. They don’t him and haw about it but rather set out for an unknown land. Despite their age, there’s still a sense of adventure and there’s still something that calls them forth in their lives.
Here’s the thing, unlike for most of us, there’s no going back. If we leave home we can often return to that location. For Abraham and Sarah, it was giving everything up. They were being called to pull of the stakes and take, once again, the road less traveled. They once again will head out into the unknown simply because of a message from the Lord to Abraham. It’s as if they recognize that it’s not about this world and see themselves as passing through. There’s no reason to dig in to deeply because when the Lord calls them to do what would seem impossible and even crazy to us, they go forward. They don’t allow the pain of the past or failed expectations to stop them from heading out to the unknown and once again living with this sense of adventure and child-like trust in God.

Now we couple that with today’s gospel and the disciples who witness the transfiguration. As quickly as Abraham and Sarah are willing to pull up the stakes and head out on the road less traveled, accepting the difficulties of life and yet trusting God and the unknown, Peter quickly wants to settle down. He quickly wants to build and altar, drive in the stakes of the tent, and call it quits. It’s not that they didn’t know life was difficult. They were fishermen which was not and is not an easy life. They understood that. But with Jesus, maybe they thought differently and react to what they see and decide to end the journey there.

Jesus, like Abraham and Sarah, though, still knows that the road will become much more narrow and very much less traveled as they make their way towards Jerusalem. The ultimate test will be the cross and whether they have what it takes to push through and be pushed through such pain and agony. It’s the moment when the spiritual and life intersect and we’re left with the decision whether we want to settle down, drive in the stakes, and erect the picket fence, or allow ourselves to experience yet another adventure by God calling us forth. It really is the reality of our lives anyway, always in transition, always being called forth, always being led to the great unknown, deeper mystery, that leads to the fulfillment of life that we truly desire. It’s easy to not change. But it also makes me miserable, fearful, and well, quite honestly, so self-consumed that I can’t see anything beyond my hurt and pain. We’d rather hunker down in Good Friday than experience the newness of Easter.

As we continue this journey through Lent, our prayer is that we have the perseverance that Abraham and Sarah exhibited in their lives and their own acceptance of the difficulties of life and yet not allowing themselves to become attached to it all. They remained open to change and to whatever it was that God was calling forth in that very moment. When we don’t limit ourselves to experiencing God simply on Sunday, but rather as a way of life, making the time for prayer and silence, we become more attuned to the voice of God as they did. Maybe that’s what scares us the most. When we do hear that voice, it may ask us to do something crazy or impossible, thwarting our own plans for life. But like them, when we choose the road less traveled and persevere, the promise of Easter remains a promise. It doesn’t mean it won’t be difficult. That’s a reality. But it will be an adventure, a change, free of burying our own stakes in the ground, and an openness to wherever God may lead.

Living With Uncertainty When Certainty is Expected

I question almost everything in life. No, I wouldn’t and don’t consider myself a skeptic by any stretch of the imagination, but I am a seeker and someone who’s always looking for a deeper truth in almost any place I can look. There isn’t a stone unturned that isn’t examined from every different perspective imaginable, despite the fact that the stone will always be a stone. In moments of questioning, as I do, there is always a truth to hold onto; the stone remains a stone, even if smashed. Just the same that, who I really am, in the eyes of God, will always remain, no matter how much it feels like what I have known is also falling apart.

It’s easy to analyze a stone, but when it comes to our lives, we live with a much greater amount of uncertainty, despite our most basic of instincts wanting to grab onto something we can be certain of, bringing us some sense of peace, albeit momentarily, in moments when it feels as if everything is falling apart around us. I only know it because I’ve been there in my own life, my natural inclination to return to what I am most comfortable, not wanting to live with the uncertain and the uncomfortable. It’s as if, at times, where in my life I am playing a game of ping pong between the two, not always wanting to sit in the tension of the two, in finding another way of going forward. However, more often than not, even that feels like the unknown and uncertainty in my life because we have become so accustomed to our own way of thinking, tribal thinking, nonetheless.

We all want to belong. It might be the one thing we can be certain of in life. It begins with our desire to be a part of a family, and then peers, coworkers, church, political party, for it gives us some kind of definition in our lives and also provides us a platform to stand upon and something to stand up for in our lives, especially if we haven’t found our own voice. It gives us the certainty that we want in life, that helps to keep us feeling safe, despite its very rooting in fear. What we fail to see is that so much of it isn’t worth standing for and yet we’re willing to go to the stake for it, defending something that merely lies at the surface of who we are and never moves to the deeper understanding of our soul, of our identity in Christ and who we are as people.

I have found myself struggling greatly these days, in particular for a man that does question and seeks deeper meaning in life and in the world. I have found myself struggling with our inability to see ourselves in a different light, where we have gone wrong and where the Gospel demands us to look at our own fragility and shadow side that only seems to loom larger with each passing day and week. I struggle with how we can be so certain about where we go as a country, often locked in our tribal thinking that only seeks to destroy us as a people, when, even in my own life, I am almost never certain of direction. Something is dying and yet we fear it so greatly that we must clamp down on what we know and what we’re certain of, all the signage that has defined us as a tribe, digging our heels in all the more rather than allowing ourselves to sit without reacting and learning as to what it’s revealing about me and my life and what I’m holding onto and where I need to let go, a nonviolent resistance towards myself. Whether we like it or not, we don’t need to build walls as a nation because we’ve already done it with each other and our tribes. The mere desire of building walls rather than bridges should not surprise us, for that is what and who we have become and now we reflect it outwards. For all intensive purposes, the wall has already been built and each of us has helped to lay the bricks over these years.

Sure, maybe it’s not our tribe that wants to build walls, cutting ourselves off from foreign land. That doesn’t exclude me from my own fears and building of walls in our own ways. If it’s not our bricks we can almost be certain that it’s our cement that is helping to hold it together. We become name callers and step onto the world stage with a pride that dampens my ability to see the other as myself. We demonize and put down and think less of because of my own certainties rather than questioning and opening myself up to the possibility of doubt. In this quest for deeper meaning, it becomes unsettling and raises anxiety for our humanity, and maybe because of such tribal thinking, we must always view everything as winners and losers, and yet, when we do we all remain losers, giving into our own fears and continuously reacting, out of our own fear and often self-righteousness, while gradually cementing the walls of separation, each certain of the answers and direction yet neither seeking “a more perfect union” but rather a win for my America, not ours. A win for my tribe, not the common good.

Do I see walls as an obstruction, of course, but I also believe we live in a finite world, often plagued by sin. Do I believe that when the dignity of any human person is being violated we must, if anything, be open to providing out of our abundant resources, absolutely, but I am also aware of my own mortality and fragility in always getting it right. It’s what makes me question and seek deeper understanding and meaning and to examine that stone I’m ready to throw from all different perspectives before I cast judgment, knowing I may have missed a perspective different from my own. I also believe that we must also serve our own. I see them daily from the comforts of my office window, encountering them as they go and wait, often times in the biting cold, waiting for food. They’re not moochers and lazy, they’re my brothers and sisters to whom it’s often more comfortable to journey with in life. That I am certain of; so much else doesn’t matter much anyway, many times simply seeking the necessities of life.

It’s easy to talk and it’s easy to cast judgment from behind my computer screen; really easy. I hike myself upon my high horse and cast the stones that I have accumulated, building a wall around myself, a tribe of one at times. How easy it can be to start throwing, free of reason, free of reflection, free of understanding, free of love, and yet, not free at all. That’s the irony of so much of our circumstances and the way of thinking that has plagued us. We fight for freedom for all and yet we’re not even free ourselves. I’ve learned that so much is theory, even the Gospel, until we have that personal encounter with the other who hurts and who we have walled out over time. I think of the homeless I have ignored. I think of someone who looks different that I feared. I think of someone who spoke in derogatory ways when I didn’t speak out of fear or wanting to be liked. Then the encounter. Then the uncertainty. Then the breaking down of the walls and ego. Then the change of heart. Then the comfort with mystery and unknown. Then the discernment. Then the nonviolent resistance. Then the real change that is needed.

All too often we pick and choose what it is we think is most important and what we’ll speak out against, so often as it’s been defined and spun for us, but at the heart of all of it are fragile human beings, often used and abused as consumers to get what we want for our own gratification and to stroke our own ego. Over the years, in particular since 9/11, we have gradually laid bricks and cemented them into place tightly around the heart of this country that found itself deeply wounded, an innocence lost and taken away, trying so desperately to fill that void with something, with a certainty we think we once had, the city on a hill, the beacon of hope to the rest of the world. It’s time we “tear down that wall” and no longer band-aid what has ailed us as a country. My fear is we will only continue to build the walls higher and with stronger cement; but one day Troy will fall, as every empire eventually does in time, when it can no longer sustain it’s own perceptions and illusions that it thinks it is, an illusion of strength, an illusion of superiority, especially when everyone else knows otherwise.

You can only avoid your own pain and hurt for so long before it catches up with you. That I am certain of and have experienced. The greatest challenge is, that when that uncertainty and doubt begins to creep into our lives, as it always will, that we don’t quickly react to it, laying yet another brick and stone; rather, to respond to it with love, for it is only love that begins to crack walls and move us forward and inward to our deepest identity that promises life and death, always uncertain and yet seeking, discerning what is necessary to lead not to more certainty to hold onto, but rather, the wings needed to fly above and beyond while descending me to greater depths of meaning and understanding while encountering my own deeper humanity in the other.

It’s not about our tribes and this reptilian brain that wants to trap us into our way of thinking and this need for certainty. Rather, it’s about our consciousness of it happening within me and setting it free. Then, and only then, do I begin to find the space necessary in my life for certainty and uncertainty, known and unknown, fact and mystery, superficiality and deeper meaning, tribal and yes, our truest identity, all of us, that holds all things together in Christ. That is why I question. That is why I seek. And for me, that is what it means to live with faith, with uncertainty, when all too often people demand certainty. If I’m so certain, I then question where God is in my life.